Sunday 27 January 2013

American Gods, Shakespeare's Sonnets, Les Miserables, Game of Thrones

It's been a long time since my last update, but this is not because I haven't been reading. I've been dabbling, with four books on the go at once. A lot of people say to me, "I can't do that. Don't you get confused?" Well, no, not when one is a weird sprawling fantasy, one is poetry, one is an enormous classic and the other a thriller, or a book of geek wisdom. I tend not to read more than one book in each genre at a time, but of course it takes longer to finish any one of these books.

The main book that has taken up my attention the last couple of weeks is my third reading of American Gods. As I may have mentioned before, I rather love Neil Gaiman as a storyteller, as well as a master of the English language. American Gods, being a messy sprawling epic, takes several reads to fully appreciate, and on my first attempt I confess I only liked it, didn't love it. It's complicated, with a lot going on, and it makes more sense every time. When you know what's going on in the overall shape of the plot, you can pick up on details that made no sense or impression the first time around. 

It was only on my most recent reading of American Gods that I noticed the character who just does not stick in the memory. Just as Shadow will look away from him and forget what he looks like, I would think, "that's odd - I expect his identity will be cleared up later," turn the page and not notice when the book provides no answer - his memory-erasing powers coming off the page and affecting even this reader. Now I've noticed his presence, I want to know who he is. I feel I ought to know, but the internet provides no answers, only pet theories.

Also, when I knew what Mister Wednesday's overall intentions are, I found myself looking out for the moments when events digress from his plan, wondering just how different American Gods could have been had Shadow made different choices along the way. 

I recently found an excellent Complete Oxford Shakespeare in three volumes second-hand in a charity shop in Hythe. Each volume is a reasonable sized book, and what's more unusual for a Complete Shakespeare, the print is a good size, fond and clarity for actually reading! I decided to read through all of the sonnets in order and have just passed #100. Everybody knows the famous ones - #18 and #130, and #116 if you're a fan of the Sense and Sensibility movie with Kate Winslet - but it's a different experience to read in sequence. I don't know if the order the sonnets are published in is Shakespeare's or someone else's, but they read rather as one long poem in many verses than individual poems. Sonnets in the sequence share themes and imagery, and sometimes don't even stand alone well, following on from the previous sonnet with a "So" or a "But" or an "Or."

 It might not be common knowledge that only sonnets #127-154 are written about a woman, and even these are far from traditional love poems ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," indeed!) The majority of the sequence, including "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" are actually addressed to a beautiful young man. Whether or not the poems are autobiographical, the nature of the relationship and the identity of the "fair youth" are, as most details about Shakespeare's life, all unknown, but the sonnets chart the complexities of love, the ups and downs of human relationships over a stretch of time, and perhaps the unhealthy power of infatuation - let me reiterate that Shakespeare wrote 126 sonnets to this chap! (There's an idea for a scholarly essay!)

I'm one of those people who likes to insist upon reading a book before seeing a film or TV adaptation based upon it, but I did not manage to read more than a few chapters of Les Miserables before seeing the film of the stage musical. Nor had I been to see the stage show, so all I knew was that Jean Valjean was on the run from the law after having spent many years imprisoned for stealing bread, that it is set during the French Revolution (This turned out to be incorrect. The Paris Uprising or June Rebellion was a major part of the plot, however.) and that a lot of characters die. I also, of course, knew several of the songs reasonably well. I know the rest of them now, having listened to the soundtrack on Spotify a couple of times - although it is a travesty that on Highlights of Les Miserables, the song I felt to be the highight, "Do you hear the people sing?" was missing. Of course, there are other versions available, from various London and Broadway soundtracks. 

The performances were fantastic, with an excellent cast of actors with decent singing skills - although I preferred the chorus numbers to the solos, probably because of the harmonies and the power in a crowd of voices. I understand that the songs were recorded live on set rather than overdubbed in a studio later, which was a brave decision and added a level of authenticity to the film. Anne Hathaway's raw, anguished rendition of "I dreamed a dream" was haunting. The song is often used to show off a strong voice, while the movie took a different approach. Film acting and singing requires different things to acting and singing in a theatre. On the stage, actors have to make their emotions and words as big and clear as possible so as to fill the entire theatre and leave no one in any doubt about what is going on. The camera, on the other hand, gets right in close to the actors, allowing for more subtlety of expression, and I defy you to find many classically-trained singers who can hold a tune (especially that long "shame" in "I dreamed a dream") while a blubbering, snotty mess. 

Where Les Mis fell down a little was, I felt, a result of compressing a 1200-page brick of a book into two and a half hours. The film rushed through some of the characters who would have benefitted from more screen time - Hathaway's "Fantine" is hardly in it, although the time she does spend on the screen is incredible. Some plot points could benefit from more elaboration, and I loathed the romance, if you can call it that, between Marius and Cosette. They see each other twice, speak once, and all of a sudden, they have found the reason for living and can't bear to be apart. I'm sure the novel will have handled it better - it had better, with 1200 pages. In the film, the love story felt forced and was particularly jarring when in the middle of the student protest-planning-meeting, 
("Red! The blood of angry men. 
Black! The dark of ages past.
Red! The world about to dawn.
Black! The night that ends at last.")
Marius would go off all mushy about his "love." 
"Red! I feel my world on fire.
Black! My world if she's not there.
Red! The colour of desire!
Black! The colour of despair."
You don't even know her! There is a time and a place, son, and this is not it - let's see if you survive your protest on the barricade before deciding to live happily ever after with this girl you saw this afternoon.

I wish them a long, long life together.

This bit contains a Season one/A Game of Thrones spoiler

After reading George R R Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series last year, I have debated with myself whether or not to watch the HBO series, Game of Thrones. Eventually I borrowed the first season from a friend, but even as I put on the first DVD, I wasn't sure whether or not I would want to watch it. I had images in my mind of how the characters and places should look, and also I was a bit anxious about getting caught up in that story world for a second time. It is one of those stories that grabs the imagination and doesn't let go, which is both exhilarating and sometimes a bit scary when it comes to be time to face the real world again.

These doubts were gone before the first set of credits after the prologue.

It was interesting to relive the beginning of the story knowing what was to come. Reading the book, I had liked Eddard Stark, set up to be the hero, well enough - he's a decent chap with honour and values, but not the most exciting character in literature. But Sean Bean excels in the role, and I felt that Ned was an admirable, solid man, a good egg in a basket of bad apples - sorry for the mixed metaphor! - who held the world of Westeros together. It is, after all, after his death that everything starts to fall apart. I also started noticing the number of times one character would say "We will speak about X subject when we meet again." Of course, this is a guarantee that they will never meet again.

Putting faces to names changed the way I viewed some of the characters. Many of the worst villains of the book actually evoked some pity in me, notably Queen Cersei and even the ghastly Joffrey. On the other hand, designated heroes irritated me when on screen, notably Jon Snow. I had expected Daenerys Targaryen to have that effect, but in fact she grew on me as her character evolved. 


  1. So, in summary, "Need to read, really should have read, need to read, will read but have temporarily skipped over this fragment of blog post because of the spoilery warning."

    I know exactly nada about Les Miserables, having never read the book, seen the stage version or watched the movie, but I would very much like read AND watch it at some point. It'll probably be another one of those where I buy the book and staunchly refuse to let myself get the DVD until I'm done reading. :)

    Oh, and P.S. I'm one of those people who can only recite sonnet 116 (all of it though, not just the Sense and Sensibility-recited lines). And the prologue to Romeo and Juliet. And Byron's She Walks in Beauty. I'm working on it!

  2. It's really unusual for me to not read the book first - I'm working through that now. I ran out of time before the film hit the cinemas, so I broke my usual rule. I suspect the book will be better storytelling - but sadly lacking the songs.

    I remember at uni when we studied poetry and had to pick any sonnet to write about, it had to be 116 because of S&S. I wonder if my tutor suspected...


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